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Alabama Fifth-Grader Is National Handwriting Champ

May 22, 1996

WASHINGTON (AP) _ There are no showy loops or curlicues in Jennifer Fata’s penmanship, and never (gasp) an ``i″ dotted with a balloon. With perfect form and slant, her handwriting _ described as ``poetry in motion″ _ was judged the best of 90,000-plus elementary students in America.

``I like doing handwriting,″ said Jennifer, an 11-year-old right-hander who favors mechanical pencils. ``I’m good at art and painting. It comes off those genes.″

The fifth-grader from Sacred Heart School in Cullman, Ala., today was named grand champion of this year’s national handwriting contest. It was sponsored by Zaner-Bloser, a Columbus, Ohio, company that publishes handwriting texts, and Parker Pen, a subsidiary of The Gillette Co. Both companies have conducted research indicating that sloppy script causes problems on and off the job.

Illegible handwriting stumps mail-sorting machines at the U.S. Postal Service, meaning some federal tax refund checks never reach their destinations. And bungled longhand is a headache for pharmacists, hospital staff and office workers, says Zaner-Bloser vice president Richard Northup.

Doctors are notorious for their scribbles.

``Sometimes you can’t read the name, the drug or the directions,″ said Jennifer Franckowiak, a pharmacist in Myerstown, Pa. ``We learn the drugs in school and usually you can figure it out.″

Contest judge Clinton Hackney of Tampa, Fla., who teaches handwriting classes, said he chose Jennifer’s penmanship because it met the four keys to legibility: letter size, letter shape, slant and spacing.

``Some kids will draw each stroke, very laboriously,″ Hackney said. ``I remember that Jennifer’s looked as if she had written with some degree of ease and fluency.″

People first noticed Jennifer’s fluid style when she learned cursive in second grade. It improved under the guidance of handwriting instructor Sister Tonette Sperando, who tells her students penmanship is an art. She calls Jennifer’s method ``poetry in motion.″

In class, Sister Tonette, walking desk to desk, calls out the strokes: ``We begin slightly above the top line. Now, we’re going to make a loop. Pick up your pencil. OK, top line, slant down, loop above the mid-line ...″

She said the pupils’ writing offers clues about their moods.

``If it’s shaky, and it’s not normally so, I’ll say `Are you all right?′ and they’ll say `Sister, I don’t feel well this morning,′ or `I had a fight with mom this morning.‴

There is a declining emphasis on handwriting in schools, Hackney said. Some teachers don’t know how to teach penmanship, others emphasize content over style, he said.

And Corporate America may be suffering.

``Sometimes the letters run together,″ said Pam Beatty, administrative assistant at AT&T Corp.’s Washington office. ``If you focus on the content of the sentence, you can usually make it out.″

But poor handwriting is becoming less of a problem as more people use computers to write letters and restaurants install computerized ticket ordering systems. ``It’s more efficient and you can actually read them,″ says Melissa Ballinger, corporate chef at Clyde’s restaurant in Washington. ``Waiters and waitresses write like doctors.″

Still, Hackney believes a strong stroke will never go out of style. ``I think there is always going to be a need for good handwriting. You’re not going to carry a computer around with you all the time.″